On April 12th 2011, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discussed science and morality at Oxford University in a talk entitled “Who Says Science has Nothing to Say About Morality.” After a fascinating discussion where Sam Harris spent half an hour defending his attempt to establish a scientific basis for morality, the two men undermine the entire program with some offhand comments at the end of the session.
Richard Dawkins: Some people would find this prospect very frightening, very alarming (but) I think one of the most spectacular examples is the evidence that decisions are taken in our nervous system before we consciously know it. So when we decide to do something, little do we know that several seconds earlier we have already decided. Which is another example of where science can actually get inside our minds better than we can.
Sam Harris: That actually torpedoes the whole notion of free will. I think you actually don’t need a notion of free will in order to have a notion of moral truth and this is something that is very counter-intuitive to people, but we know free will is a non-starter philosophically and scientifically. Now many people struggle not to admit this, but however our mental life is caused, it is caused either by prior causes or by some randomness intruding but whether its purely deterministic or there’s determinate causes combined with some randomness, neither offer a space for free will to operate . . .
And we know, just as a matter of scientific fact that everything you are consciously intending to do and wanting to do and judging to be good or bad is preceded by neural events of which you are not conscious and of which you are not the author. We walk through life feeling like we are the conscious author of our thoughts, but you cannot think a thought before you think it. So here is an experiment in free will. Think of a famous person . . . If you thought of Ricky Gervais, you can’t account for why you didn’t think of Eddie Izzard. That goes for every other move you might make that is starkly voluntary. Things simply spring into consciousness. Now the reason that this is not morally important is what we condemn in other people is not the fact that they really are the ground cause of their actions, what we condemn are intentions to do harm and intentions are still part of the causal framework.
With these words, Dawkins and Harris outline their belief that science has “torpedoed the notion of free will” by showing that our conscious thoughts and actions are preceded by neural stimuli of which we are not conscious. I have done some research, and I believe they are talking about some finger movement experiments conducted by neurologists. I do not find their arguments compelling for a number of reasons.
The first inadequacy of their argument is the human ability to plan things for the future. I don’t deny that in certain “finger movement” experiments the action precedes the conscious awareness, but we have all made plans where our actions are known by our conscious minds days, weeks or even months in advance. A few months from now, I am going to fly out and see my parents in California. The reasons I am going are all consciously known to me. I haven’t seen them in a while, my brother is going so I will get to see him also and I have the money. While in California I am also going to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while. Now this might not happen if something comes up, but I would say that in the past when I have made such plans they came to fruition 90% of the time. Clearly the physical movements that comprise my trip come substantially after my conscious decisions. Harris even recognizes this when he admits that “intentions are still part of the causal framework”. But if my actions in the future are determined by my intentions now, isn’t that an example of some form of free will?
Another problem I have with this argument is that it seems to ignore that what comes out of my subconscious mind is not out of my control. When I first performed Harris’ “Name a famous person experiment”, the person I thought of was Albert Einstein. Now this may seem random to you, but I had in fact been reading a couple of biographies on Albert Einstein because I had decided that I wanted to know more about him. While we can’t “think a thought before we think it”, we can cultivate certain mindsets out of which certain thoughts will come. If a person is a violent person who cultivates violence in their life and constantly broods on anger and revenge, then when that person is faced with an external stimuli, their response is going to be a function of the violence with which they have surrounded themselves. If a person with violent tendencies tries to forgive and show acts of kindness and love, then that person will gradually become less violent. My experience of this kind of change in my own life is the reason I have an unalterable loyalty to Jesus Christ. While Harris and Dawkins would have told me that my cause was hopeless, Jesus Christ taught me to love, forgive and be grateful and this has helped me to become a much better person than I used to be. This is another form of free will that is not “torpedoed” by the finger moving experiments discussed by Harris and Dawkins.
Many atheists recite the mantra, “a fantastic claim requires a fantastic amount of evidence”, but that notion of skepticism seems entirely absent when considering the idea that our conscious experience is a delusion and that human beings are incapable of choice. How can so many smart people abandon reason and evidence and decide that our conscious experience is completely illusory? I am a firm believer that at the core of every sincerely believed error there is a kernel of truth. What is the truth that is behind all of this nonsense?
A Slave of Sin
One day when I was at UCLA I decided that I was disgusted by my pornography habit. “How can I watch this stuff and think of women as only tools to use to gratify my lust? I have to get rid of all this crap out of my life.” I proceeded to take my small magazine collection down to a dumpster and threw it all away. A few hours later, a strange and feverish desire came over me such as I had never really experienced before. Within minutes I had gone down to the dumpster and jumped in, hoping to recover a magazine that was not covered with slime . . .
Having had that experience, I know what it is to be what the Bible calls a “slave to sin”. For this reason, I am sympathetic with a man who says, “No matter how hard I try, I cannot overcome this problem. The ability to choose is not real. I am driven by baser impulses to lust, anger, hatred, envy and gluttony.” Whether he knows it or not, a man who has said such a thing has closely mirrored the words of the Apostle Paul:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)
What can we say to a man who desires to be free of such things but finds himself incapable of that freedom on his own? Only that help is available through Jesus Christ.